This is an attempt to write down something I’ve never written out before: how I decide whom to vote for in elections for national office. This is how I understand what I am doing. There’s plenty here to discuss or argue about.
Voting is in one way the most morally consequential thing we do. The outcome of a vote, especially for national office, has far more of an impact that the generous or committed acts of most individuals (myself, at least) or the money we give to nonprofits.
It’s worth approaching the vote in the spirit of Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ teaching that we should always regard the world as in a perfect balance between merit and guilt, such that our next act will decide whether we will earn a judgment of merit or a judgment of destruction. While most elections are not decided by our single vote, we know well that they can be. It’s important to vote with the thought that your vote could be the one that decides about budgets and military actions and how laws are implemented and enforced. Who will eat and who will go hungry, whose illnesses will be researched and treated, whose lives will be risked in battle, who will live or die in another land because America does or does not act in those places.
I am writing this as an American patriot, a lover of my country, who is also a Jew trying to follow the spiritual and ethical teachings of my Torah and aware of my place in the long history of the Jews. I have for a decade not been registered with a political party. Political acts and decisions are religious acts for me; the parties are practical instruments.
If I had to put this into a flow chart, this is how I break it down. I’m going to do all of this in theory, conceptually.
At the root for me is an idea that the political philosopher Michael Walzer puts this way: “[T]hink of the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the country. And then vote, gladly, for the candidate who minimizes their vulnerability.”
There is a lot here. Walzer (who is worth knowing a lot about, and I should write about him separately sometime) says right before this quote that it’s not about whether you like or inspired by a candidate, or whether you judge the candidate to be a good person in some fundamental way (more on this below). It’s about what that person can deliver in terms of the most vulnerable.
I think this would be an ethical imperative for me regardless of my Jewish principles. For me it’s a fundamental part of Torah. I generally apply this in the spirit of the political theorist John Rawls. Rawls argued that inequality, or something that increases inequality, can be justified morally so long as it also benefits the most vulnerable in society.
And Walzer argues that today, the first part of that is to minimize vulnerability. There is also a step beyond that, which is transforming the conditions that allow anyone to be vulnerable – but first, who minimizes their vulnerability.
The vulnerability I have always thought about first is economic vulnerability – whether it’s not being able to afford adequate shelter or food, or not being able to afford adequate medical care. With that, I have thought about economic vulnerability that comes from discrimination, on the basis of color and other bases, and the discrimination itself. More lately, I have come to think much more about the vulnerability of refugees.
1. So first I want to know – does the candidate even care? And not just about certain vulnerable groups, but about all of them. Everyone has blind spots, and many have come up through the ranks on the basis of work on behalf of a particular group. But caring only about vulnerable whites or vulnerable people of color, to the exclusion of other vulnerable people, isn’t enough.
This isn’t only about policies. I think certain policy approaches show more caring about vulnerability. But I’m always open to the candidate who argues for why another approach is also caring and is effective. Anyone who is sincere makes my first cut. Even if the policies being offered have been associated in the past, or are associated today, with people or groups who clearly don’t care about the most vulnerable.
2. Walzer argues specifically about our era that ‘[w]hat the most vulnerable people need right now is the protection afforded by a strong constitutionalism. The defense of civil liberties and civil rights… -- this is a centrist politics.” I would add another element to this “centrism”, which is a defense of the idea of America as a whole, made up of different groups with different origins and with different philosophies.
Some of this is about policies and the ways laws are enforced. It’s also about a political culture – the responsibility not to divide. I look for a candidate who speaks about America expansively and inclusively in her or his rhetoric, and who can disagree with passion without demonizing.
3. There are two things I think about next: Are the candidate’s policies reasonable approaches to minimizing vulnerability? Is the candidate someone who could actually accomplish something that minimizes vulnerability?
While these two don’t come in a particular order, I have been thinking more and more about the second question, the leadership dimension. One candidate might have a better set of policy ideas, but be a terrible leader – ineffective, bad at mobilizing people, wilting under pressure, and/or polarizing. Having that person in office hardly minimizes the vulnerability of the vulnerable.
The “How To Be President” initiative I helped found is about aspects of leadership beyond policy choices. I am looking for a leader who is clear-eyed about things like failure and compromise; who has forcefully, driven-ness and humility; who knows that not all your allies are good people and not all your opponents are evil; who has a way of thinking about how decisions at the top affect everyone; who has a way of knowing how to ache when policies fail or ignore some Americans, and when to push through in the face of that pain.
4. There are also Jewish issues, meaning issues of the interests of the Jewish community. A lot of Jewish issues are covered already in the earlier passes -- particularly with regard to hate, bias, discrimination, religious freedom for minorities. But other things being relatively equal, the candidate who has a blind spot about anti-Semitism will fall back in my line.
Then when it comes to Israel, I am looking for the candidate who believes Israel is a fundamentally democratic country; who understands the dangers Israelis live with in their region; who supports justice for both Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine and does not place the responsibility for the conflict solely on Israelis; who knows that most Jewish-American supporters of Israel have no truck with Muslim-haters, racists and the religiously intolerant just because those people might also support Israel.
5. Usually, these cover everything for me in the decision tree. Sometimes, in a given election, there is a specific issue of the moment. I reserve the right to figure out where it should fit in my general scheme.
I never get someone who is perfect on all these criteria. Elections are always choices between two or more actual candidates. Each time, I try to assess who is best overall on these criteria, and I figure out how I am going to weigh each consideration as I go. If the choices each have serious flaws, I don’t know how I am going to “dock” for them until I do it.
I don’t vote to feel good about what I believe or to have the satisfaction of “being right.” Lives are on the line. As long I keep my eye on why I am voting, whose lives depend on my vote, I believe I am doing the best I can.
Each year in the Temple Beth Abraham bulletin I tend to write about the same thing at this time of year. This is as good as I've done so far in articulating why Chanukkah is important, and why it is important for American Jews at this holiday season. This is my December column:
You’ve probably heard over and over that Chanukkah is a “minor” holy day. Something we make a big deal about especially in modern America – something especially for Jewish children in a Christmas-saturated environment.
It’s true, Chanukkah is no Passover. But in fact, it’s not a new thing, the question about how significant Chanukkah really is. In fact, the Jewish religious authorities in the time of the Talmud were anti-Chanukkah. At a time when Jews were under the thumb of Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian emperors, the rabbis were none too keen on celebrating an uprising against imperial power. They managed to wrestle Chanukkah down to just a couple of paragraphs in the sprawling Talmud and left pretty much a story about divine light alone, the cruse of oil in the Temple that lasted eight days.
In fact, Chanukkah has always been about the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the majority culture, its values and its forces. That’s in fact what the original events were all about. So it’s worth taking an adult, “Judaism 201” look at the Chanukkah story.
The events of Chanukkah took place in the period of about 180-160 B.C.E. This was about 150 years after the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon, who brought the Land of Israel into the cultural and political world of Hellenism.
In many ways, Hellenism was the American culture of its time. There was a language, Greek, that spread to become a common language through much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Hellenism was a dominant world culture. Its positive elements included philosophy, art, and international trade that linked people together and brought prosperity and material advancement. The negative side of Hellenism included a worship of the physical body and a focus on beauty and strength above other values – pagan values.
The Jews in the Land of Israel, as well as those in exile all around the Mediterranean Sea, were deeply influenced by Hellenism. Each regional Jewish community faced the question of how much to adapt to Hellenism, whether to assimilate completely in part, or whether to remain separate.
It wasn’t a one-way street. Because the Hellenists valued learning and culture in general, some non-Jews learned about Judaism and decided that it was a kind of pure philosophy, a truth without all the trappings of pagan gods and rituals. About a century after Alexander the Great, who himself had been a student of Aristotle, the Torah was translated into Greek.
There was corruption among the kohanim, the priestly leadership of the Jews at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was not only a religious center, but a because of the gifts and offerings that people would bring. Ambitious people among the priests were vying for authority over the Temple. Some tried to curry favor with different imperial officials, by offering political support or outright bribes.
Just like today, the Land of Israel was situated geographically at a military and economic crossroads. Around the time of Chanukkah, in fact, the land changed hands. When Alexander died, his empire had been split in half, ruled from capitals in Egypt and in Syria. Initially the Egypt-based rulers controlled Judea, and they were on the whole tolerant of the Jews. But then the Seleucids, the “Syrian-Greeks” we know from the Chanukkah story, took over. Even then, the situation of the Jews did not change right away.
Then a new and crazy emperor, Antiochus IV, came to power in Syria. He believed that he was himself a god. He ordered the takeover of the Temple in Jerusalem and banned key Jewish practices. Some of the historical sources say that he took advantage of the weakness of both Jewish society and the officials beneath him. Others say that the Jewish assimilationists actively invited his intervention and his decrees.
The group we know as the Maccabees came to lead the revolt against Antiochus. They were themselves kohanim, but separate from the corrupt priests of Jerusalem. Their family name was Chashmonai; their patriarch was Matityahu (Mattathias) and his sons included Yehudah (Judah).
They believed in Jewish distinctiveness, but they also believed in some modern adaptation to Hellenism. So for instance, during their three-year revolt that begin in 165 B.C.E., they made certain decisions that were not so traditionally Jewish. They decided fighting on Shabbat was permitted in order to save lives. Their battle plan had some of the same features that the modern Israel Defense Forces would use in 1948 and 1967.
When they finally drove out Antiochus' forces, the Maccabees led both a traditional religious revival and a new approach to Jewish culture and power. They instituted a new annual festival, Chanukkah, but based it on the Sukkot festival that had gone unmarked in the Temple in the prior years. (That's initially why Chanukkah is eight days; the story of the oil came hundreds of years later.) They installed themselves as kings, even though they were not descendants of King David. Their leaders were known by both Hebrew and Greek names.
For me, celebrating Chanukkah reminds me that these issues of politics, value priorities, war, corruption based on money, and majority-minority relations are not new things. The candles remind me that light has to be shed on these matters, all the time.
The candles, against the darkness, are a symbol of the dedication and integrity it takes to keep our eyes open and to find and hold our moral center of gravity. The candles also remind me that Judaism could have been extinguished, could have burned out against all the political, military, economic, and cultural forces of that time. But it was not –Judaism bounced back, renewed and even began to reinvent itself.
So Chanukkah is not just a children’s story. And it resonates for us in America today for the same reasons it has resonated since the days of the Maccabees. Maybe it’s not Passover, but Chanukkah is hardly minor.
Chag Urim Same'ach – A Joyous Festival of Lights,
This occurred to me recently as the presidential primary campaigns are underway. I propose that no one donate any money to a campaign for the Democratic or Republican nomination. As far as I can tell, whoever the nominee is for each party will espouse the same basic policies as his party on the major economic issues. The return on investment, for an individual and especially for the nation, is incredibly small on a primary campaign donation. Untold millions will be spent on these campaigns, and most of it will be wasted on losing campaigns. Instead, if you have a political passion and money to spare, use it to shore up nonprofits that provide social services, increase scholarship funds at colleges, or provide capital to a small business that could create the jobs people need.
The general election is a true choice. The amount of money spent on it is also obscene and wasteful. I have no good answer to that today.
Second proposal, as I listen to blow-by-blow accounts of where Col. Qadafi might be today: How about a newspaper that only prints stories about what happened three days ago? Then reporters could sift through what they learn in real time and give us the facts we would need to understand an event or issue, without the extraneous "scoop" that has no value to our ongoing understanding.
This last day's focus on Jewish dedication is centered on the number 8 itself. Eight is a significant Jewish number. A bris takes place on the eighth day of a boy's life. Eight is associated with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem -- King Shlomo dedicated the first Temple on Sukkot, the eight-day fall festival. In the Torah, the portable Mishkan began to operate at the end of an eight-day ritual.
Eight, in other words, is the number that represents covenant. Seven is nature, and eight is something extra. What God adds, what we bring -- eight is the partnership between human beings and God in this world.
There are, according to Rabbi Moses Maimonides, eight levels of tzedakah. The highest level is a gift, loan, or partnership that helps a poor person become self-sufficient. Leading in the Jewish community in this commitment is the Jewish Funds for Justice TZEDEC program, which I have written about before and can't ever resist boosting again. TZEDEC pools capital from Jewish institutions and individuals, and invests in loan funds that support economic and community development in low-income areas. Their newest intiative is called, aptly enough, 8thDegree. It makes microloans to support small businesses in New Orleans, which is still rebuilding slowly after Hurricane Katrina. TZEDEC and 8thDegree flow from Jewish teachings but support the wider community.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov (it's the beginning of the new month of Tevet), and for a final time this year, Chag Urim Sameach!
Jack Kemp died just a couple weeks ago, on May 2. I thought of the long-time conservative political leader as I studied Parashat Behar last week.
I've always considered Jack Kemp to be one of my influences, as someone who came of age in the 1980s, because of the particular kind of free-market conservatism he espoused. He was fanatical for low taxes and economic freedom, but he never used those principles to say that society should turn its back on the poor. Instead, he championed market-based strategies, whether school choice or support for home ownership, as the most effective tools for fight poverty. He served as Secretary of Housing in the administration of George Bush.
His interest in helping individual own homes -- that's what I thought about when he died, and what kept him in mind during the week of Parashat Behar. Leviticus chapter 25 says two things. There is the law of the sabbatical year, when essentially no one in Israel owns any property, but all eat equally off the land. Then there is the law of the jubilee, which returns everyone to the property and home that belonged to their families originally, when the Land of Israel was divided among tribes, clans, and families. Much of the chapter elaborates procedures for helping someone "redeem" or buy back a home that he had to sell because of financial difficulties.
There is an idea here, that combating poverty for the Torah is not just about feeding people, making sure that people do not suffer. A person is entitled to a place, and to a sense of place. Being planted somewhere matters. We deserve not just to survive, but to be able to go home. It's an interesting angle, especially for people as mobile as Jews. Once we were forced into exile, but today even by choice we move around at least as much as any other subgroup in American society.
The idea of redeeming a home shows up in later Jewish law. To support a person who has become poor, the laws of tzedakah state that we must provide the utensils typical for a home. The law reminds us that there is a certain dignity that comes with having a home -- a place to go to, a place to make Shabbat, to invite guests. I asked in shul last Shabbat how our social policies in America would have to shift in order to be more in line with the Torah. The most effort in our social welfare system goes to feeding people and helping them find jobs. Having a home -- Jack Kemp's preoccupation -- is something we do less well. Housing policy -- subsidies, public housing, etc -- is a very complicated topic. But so much flows from it in terms of real dignity, a sense of having one of the homes in a community.
Which gives me one more opportunity to plug a Jewish project called TZEDEC, organized by the Jewish FundS for Justice (that's not a typo). TZEDEC pools capital from individual Jews and institutions to invest in low-income community development, including affordable housing. It's a terrific example of how Judaism is neither liberal nor conservative in its social philosophy, or perhaps both at the same time. TZEDEC is one of the most innovative Jewish tzedakah initiatives in the country, a way of bringing the values of tzedakah and the Leviticus 25 to investment and the market.
My first Chanuka-related posting of the season. I hope I am reaching some of you before you are in the thick of Chanuka and holiday gift giving. This year in particular is a time when we might reassess the whole matter of Chanuka presents. Originally, of course, Chanuka had no association with giving gifts -- it was Purim that is the holiday of "sending of portions to our neighbors and gifts to poor people", according to the Megillah. Apparently from a historical point of view, Christmas giving was also originally about "giving to the poor" and only since the mid-1800s came to be about exchanging gifts within a family.
Giving is rooted in our urge to be generous, and I don't want to dismiss that. But sometimes the gifts are too much.
Here is one of the more interesting things I've read about how we might reshape our approach, from a recent New York Times article. I invite people to post their own ideas.